Bernie House by David Castlewitz
Bernie House by David Castlewitz
As president of Bernie House, Walt Diablo had a lot to lose if he got caught with contraband. That made him well suited for the mission, he reasoned, as he hurried home from the tram station, mindful that anyone who saw him would interpret his long legged gait and swinging arms as signs of a man intent on getting things done, as a community leader who didn’t fit the common image of rebel or protestor.
Overhead, a pair of blue-domed police monitors drifted below the white clouds, with not even the hum of their four engines betraying their presence. The sight made Walt itch for his younger days when he’d bombard the drones with pellets from a sling shot or cheer on an explosives-laden attack flyer designed to bring down one of those flying cops. Sadly, Walt admitted, the rebel gang he’d joined when he first took up residence at Bernie House never destroyed a drone, never forced one to crash, never did more than damage a rotor or poke a hole in the donut-shaped fuselage.
Perhaps the microdot he carried under his house ring would change the house’ record. Maybe it contained plans for a new weapon. Kitty Hagman, his mentor and elderly leader of the Bernie House tech-gang, obviously had a lot of faith in what he’d bring home to them.
A pair of young residents tended to the lawn fronting Bernie House’ façade of huge wooden doors and Ionic styled twin columns. He greeted them, though not by name. The boy and girl were too new to have made any impression on him. They were working out their trial period with menial tasks. Walt hoped they were eager to join. Bernie House needed recruits.
As usual for an early afternoon, the front parlor was empty. The Big Board on the wall gave him an instant picture of the current location of the twenty-some residents.
“You’ve got a visitor.” Doris March, the Master at Arms, filled the open doorway to her office.
Walt didn’t remember any scheduled appointments. He’d spent the morning delivering a worn out speech about the benefits of living in a mutual assistance home in exchange for a large percentage of an individual’s federally guaranteed wage. Maybe he’d numbed himself to what was planned for the rest of the day. Another glance at the Board confirmed that there were no interviews or visitors scheduled for this time slot.
“Better get to her right off,” Doris said, sounding irritated. She stood with her hands at her sides, her thick legs spread wide, as though standing at parade-rest. Everything about her, from her pixie cut black hair to her heavyset build to her all-tan shirt and trousers contributed to a bulldog demeanor. As security chief, the wide face and droopy-lidded dark eyes were assets. But nothing about Doris March endeared her to Walt.
As he turned towards the French doors, Doris scurried ahead to push open the doors. The guest in the receiving room faced away from them.
Standing at the threshold to the long wide room, his shoes not quite touching the thick carpet, Walt waited to hear the doors click shut behind him. The visitor sat in one of the large chairs with a huge curved back, one long and slender leg draped across an arm rest.
The wall-sized window looked out onto the manicured courtyard between Bernie House’s four wings. A few people crowded a lone picnic table. From outside, the window was a black mirror. The residents eating their lunch outside didn’t know anyone watched them.
“I didn’t have a meeting scheduled,” Walt said. “I’m Walt Diablo, president of the house.” He waited for the visitor to stand or turn, to do something, before he committed himself by walking in that direction.
“So you are,” the visitor said, and sat up.
“Vickie?” Walt said.
She stood, smiling broadly, her narrow face beaming. Soft brown skin glowed where the police uniform of tight trousers and tight blouse didn’t cover her. One shoulder displayed a Metro patch. Three short battle ribbons decorated her left breast just above the pocket flap.
“Congrats,” Vickie said.
Still, Walt made no move to go to her, though he wanted to. He wanted to feel her slender body in his arms. Last they saw one another they’d kissed as though it would be for the very last time.
“On being selected as house president,” Vickie continued, a coy smile stretching her lips across the bottom part of her face. She carried a dark blue ball cap in one hand, the color matching the rest of the uniform.
“What happened to the combat brigade?” Walt asked, pointing a finger at the patch on Vickie’s left shoulder.
She grinned. “Four years of that was enough. Besides…” She tapped her right leg. “I got a pretty bad wound that got me tossed out.”
“So you’re with Metro? In Chicago?”
Vickie nodded. “Traffic, mainly. Some neighborhood patrolling.”
Walt couldn’t picture her stepping in when GoCars collided or jammed an intersection due to some software glitch. He didn’t see her as some kind of Officer Friendly walking a beat, either. Seven years earlier, she’d left him, left Bernie House, to enlist in the combat police, preferring, she’d claimed, not to wait on the labor draft. Preferring, too, she’d insisted, on doing something interesting with her life.
“So,” Vickie said, holding her hat with both hands. “You’re still here at the house.”
“Haven’t felt the draft yet,” Walt said, smiling. “Just another three months, just until August 24, and I’m home free.”
Which you should know, he thought. Being a metro cop, Vickie had access to files about every citizen in the city, every house in the mutual assistance network. She knew he had only three months to go before he outlived the labor draft. Why this charade?
He let Vickie play on.
“And Kitty?” she asked.
“House Counselor,” Walt said. “The Assembly let her resign when she turned 60.”
“That’s a good job for her,” Vickie said. “She probably looks the part.”
Walt grinned. Vickie was right. With her wide girth and long gray hair, her sagging jowls and lined face, Kitty was the epitome of a house counselor, her looks imparting gravity to her pronouncements and her suggestions.
“And you’re still involved with the races?” Vickie asked.
Walt detected a change in tone. He advanced a step and pulled over a chair so he could sit across from Vickie. A low glass table stood between them.
“The races?” Walt repeated. Like all of the houses in the system, some tech-minded members built and raced prop-driven airplanes as a hobby. Some houses also raced miniature cars. A few built sumo-styled wrestling robots. Vickie had never approved of the racing. She’d often chided him for his part on the team. He lacked the skill to handle a prop-plane or to design and implement the mechanics that went into building them. All he could do was run test software and provide support during races.
“It’s okay,” Vickie said. “I don’t care if you’re still fooling around with that kid stuff.”
Walt blushed. If Vickie knew the real reason the house engaged in this hobby, she wouldn’t be so quick to criticize. But she couldn’t know. Even seven years ago, back before he became president and he and Vickie shared a third floor room in the north wing, Walt had never revealed the truth. Vickie wasn’t in the loop. Kitty Hagman, the leader of the group, wanted it that way. The club was cover for a more sinister pursuit.
“What do you want?” Walt asked. “Are you coming back to the house?”
“I need your help,” Vickie said in a conspiratorial whisper.
Walt shambled down the stairs to Kitty Hagman’s sub-basement suite, halting for a moment when he saw the young couple standing in the waiting area outside the closed door. They huddled close alongside a sofa in the foyer, and then moved aside, heads bowed, when Walt appeared. He looked them over. New residents, he assumed, and hoped they hadn’t decided to opt out of their residency. Bernie House was well short of its 40 person quota with just 24 full timers, plus himself and Kitty.
“Waiting to see Miss Hagman?” Walt asked, forcing himself to smile past his irritation. That microdot under his ring burned every time he thought of it.
The boy nodded. The girl blushed. Maybe they wanted to mate-up, apply for a private room and escape the dormitories. Maybe they wanted the house counselor to make the recommendation.
“She’ll get to you,” Walt said as he brushed past. His wristband gave him immediate access to Kitty’s quarters.
She lounged in a curved loveseat next to a sculpted railing overlooking the workroom on a lower level. There, three techies labored at a cluttered table full of parts and tools and plastic bins of assorted pieces. It looked like they were assembling a buzz-flyer for that weekend’s races. Although Bernie House had never won a major tournament, Kitty kept her hobbyists busy constructing and testing, as though they were major players in the city-wide league. The real work, Bernie knew, took place on the other side of the wall, in a room that few knew existed.
“There’s a couple waiting out there,” Walt said.
“I know.” Kitty stood, her gown billowing around her. She threw a wave of gray hair out from in front of her face and Kitty produced plastic tweezers and a small acrylic box with a static-free pad. Gently, she slipped the tweezers under Walt’s ring and retrieved the microdot.
“Want to know what’s on here?” Her eyes twinkled.
“No,” Walt said. He’d never divorce himself completely from Kitty’s cadre, but he limited his involvement.
“This is the next level of blue-busting,” Kitty said, referring to the nickname given to the rebellious act of harassing police drones, which roamed freely in the sky.
“I had – we had – a visitor.” Walt grabbed a padded stool and sat. Kitty returned to her sofa. She put her bare feet on a hassock and leaned back, a whiff of lavender filling the air as she adjusted to a comfortable position.
“Go on.” Kitty waved a stubby hand at Walt. “Did you recruit any newbies today? I’d hate to see you deposed because of the residencies.”
“It’s Vickie Simmons,” Walt said. “She was waiting for me when I came home.”
“Your old mate-up?” Kitty grinned. “Are you coming to me in my role as counselor?”
Walt barged ahead with what he had to say. “She wants my help nabbing some blue busters. Specifically, any from Bernie House.”
Kitty’s face went white. “Does she know anything?” Her tone shifted from questioning to accusing. “Doris March must’ve said something to Metro and they sent your old live-in to feel us out.”
Walt shrugged. Maybe. He easily saw the security chief conspiring against the house.
“Did Vickie ever suspect anything when she lived here?” Kitty asked.
Walt shook his head. He hardly knew of what went on in the basement of Bernie House seven years ago. He only knew that Kitty, as president, presided over a close circle of technicians who raced buzz-flyers, as the prop-driven racing aircraft were called. He never knew of the tiny four-engine drones and pursuit software that were perfected in the hidden sub-basement room. Whenever a blue head was attacked by something more sophisticated than a slingshot hurled pellet, the Walt Diablo of seven years ago had no idea that Bernie House could be responsible.
“Tell me again,” Kitty said, still in that lounging posture, her feet up, her robe falling like cascading water all around her. Long strands of gray hair fell in front of one side of her face, obscuring her eye.
Walt recounted his meeting with Vickie. Tossed out of the combat police because of her injured leg, she’d spent the past year with the metropolitan department, relegated to policing neighborhoods in the packed urban centers, untangling traffic tie-ups, and handing out citations – ‘digs’ — for minor violations.
Vickie wanted a reassignment to Security Enforcement, an elite unit responsible for maintaining order. To get in, she told Walt, she had to make her mark. She had to show herself capable of more than wielding a heavy baton or separating mixed up GoCars or grabbing litterers or other minor violators. Nabbing a crew of blue busters, would elevate her status more quickly.
“She wants to be the hero,” Kitty said. “How come she suspects us?”
Walt shrugged. “I don’t know what to do.”
Kitty scratched at the sofa pads, her polished nails leaving indents in the cushions. “Don’t cooperate. That’s the first thing. Ignore her. She’s fishing.”
Walt nodded and said, “Got it. Will do.” And felt rewarded when Kitty gave him a warm smile.
Several noisy prop-driven airplanes performed loops and figure-8s a hundred feet in the air. Standing casually at the stall assigned to Bernie House, hands in the pockets of his baggy shorts, Walt watched the embedded screen in Stu Renwald’s controller. Lightweight electronics aboard the planes enabled video feedback that blended into an extended reality race course studded with aerial obstacles, ceilings, and walls. A relative newcomer to the house, Renwald had ‘clicked’ with Kitty and quickly proved adept at handling a buzz-flyer in the virtual racing domain.
Walt had never gotten beyond writing test scripts for the simulators others trained on. As a twenty-something resident fresh from a two-year post-high school Life Skills program , and before he joined the house assembly, he only occasionally served as a co-pilot.
His interest brought him to Kitty Hagman’s attention, which led to a seat on the house assembly; from there, he graduated to Kitty’s close circle of confidants. Already prone to the rebellious antics Kitty fostered, having spent his teenage years attacking police drones with slingshot hurled ball bearings, Walt readily showed his eagerness to keep up the fight. Keeping his activities secret, especially from Vickie, sharpened his appetite for rebellion.
A low flying plane buzzed overhead, its thin plastic body vibrating in tune to its electric motor. Glancing sideways, Walt watched Kitty with a cluster of kids, most of them teens like he’d once been. The woman had that grandmotherly demeanor that attracted youngsters, Walt thought.
“Can’t stay away?” she asked as she lumbered across the lawn, her circle of admirers breaking up to chase after a celebrity racer who’d just arrived. With the mid-June qualifying races in mid-stride, many of the sport’s best pilots and club leaders like Kitty now gathered in the expansive parks along the west side of the Fox River. Copses of trees and thick tracks of foliage gave the area a rural feel, although towers of office buildings were visible on the other side of the Fox and boxy apartment buildings dotted a section not too far from the park. Mutual Support Residences like Bernie House lined the base of a hill.
With curiosity scratching at the back of his mind, Walt stepped close to Kitty and whispered: “Testing your newfound weapon?”
“Thought you wanted to stay above all that.”
Race officials sat in a barricaded section, a raised stage littered with dish antennae, monitors, keyboards and tall padded stools that easily rolled across the floor so the referees could jump from screen to screen.
“Actually,” Kitty said in a confidential tone of voice, “we don’t have the details perfected. You’re not planning on telling your girlfriend, are you?” A chuckle erupted from her flabby throat.
“Don’t even joke about that!” Walt glared at the old woman. He hated any insinuation that he’d ever betray his house.
The buzzing planes maneuvered to the start line and the Bernie House pilot shouted something, his co-pilot cheered, and the aircraft bolted away from one another. On the embedded screen in the pilot’s control box, the first person view showed two sleek planes in front and a flaming ring in the extended reality field looming ominously on each side.
A loud cheer and pointing fingers got Walt’s attention. Above the trees, metal ball bearings flew towards two blue heads keeping watch on the crowd. One projectile struck a police drone and exploded. The blue head reacted by rising at a sharp angle and veering away from its position over the trees.
On the ground, several dirt bikes crossed an open field and bounced onto the cement walkway. Helmeted drivers with mirrored visors over their faces stopped briefly to confer with one another. Walt trembled with excitement, recalling his teenage years of attacking blue heads with well-placed metal pellets hurled from a slingshot.
A police van approached and several cops jumped from its open back door when it slowed.
“Never catch them now,” Kitty said, a beam of admiration in her eyes. Walt agreed. Those responsible for attacking the blue heads would be deep in the woods, beyond detection.
“What was on that microdot?” Walt asked, despite knowing he shouldn’t pry.
“Some plans,” Kitty said. “Actually, a password for a portal.”
“To get what.”
Kitty only smiled in response as police drones filled the sky. Blue heads weren’t going away. Slingshot wielding kids and attack drones manufactured by a gang of tech-whizzes would never be effective.
As he watched a flight of tiny drones rise in the air from between the trees in the nearby woods, Walt wondered if rebellion of any sort was mere childishness. Vickie thought so. She’d never understand. Not him. Not the rebellion of his youth or contribution to the rebels of Bernie House.
“I’ve got to be the adult in this relationship, Walt. You want to hang with your friends, okay. You want to keep collecting your dole and wait out the labor draft, fine. But it’s not for me, Walt.”
Vickie’s voice pounded at Walt’s ears. “Not for me, Walt,” she’d said with finality.
He shrugged in response, mumbling that one thing had nothing to do with the other. Now, recalling the scene, he mentally shrugged again.
“Is that Vickie?” Kitty asked, yanking Walt out of his revelry. That last confrontational conversation with Vickie faded.
Walt looked to where Kitty pointed, perturbed to see a tall, long legged police officer in a dark uniform, sunglasses wrapped across her eyes and around to the back of her head, a ball cap perched on her nearly bald head. Next to her, Doris March was engaged in an animated discussion.
“Are you sure Doris doesn’t know anything?” Kitty asked.
Walt wasn’t sure. He shrugged in response to Kitty’s pointed question.
Worrying about what Doris knew or what she might tell Vickie Simmons troubled Walt. Were the women friends seven years ago? Their paths must’ve crossed before Vickie left. Seven years ago, Bernie House boasted full residency, its two dormitories totally occupied, as were the twelve second floor private rooms designed for couples.
Sitting at the desk in his sparsely furnished office, Walt reviewed the weekly work assignments displayed on a flat screen monitor. Another monitor showed him the video feed from the front door, the cafeteria, the interior courtyard, and the hidden stairwells in tiled windows with white borders.
Another Monday morning. One that erupted with the arrival of a message marked with the labor board logo. Walt hadn’t given any thought to his draft status for some time. It was just ‘there’. Like an annoying itch. He didn’t wake up each morning and wonder if this would be the day he got the notice to report. Years ago, he let himself be on edge all the time, always fearing he’d be called up for a four year stint in the national labor pool. But, lately, his status was just a statement of fact, and he looked forward to his eligibility expiring in three months.
Tears came to his eyes. He wiped them away. His vision blurred as he read the official notice to report to the labor management office in an Old Loop building in Chicago-proper. The email advised him to attend to any personal affairs, settle outstanding debts, and mentally prepare for a change in lifestyle.
Walt marked the communications private and important, the latter designation as a precaution against accidental erasure. With less than three months to go until his 40th birthday, this was news he could do without. It was also, he surmised, something Vickie had a hand in doing.
He initiated a call to her. She answered, but the lower right hand window in his screen showed a blur instead of a face. Why did she turn off the viewing option? Hiding her shame at having engaged in something this underhanded?
“Know what I just got?” Walt asked.
“You realize it’s not even seven in the morning, don’t you? And a Monday at that.”
“I’ve been drafted,” Walt said, annoyed to hear Vickie snicker behind that blurred window. “Is this your doing?”
“You want me to – to give you information that badly that you’re threatening me?”
“No, Walt. I have no – “
“Fix it, Vickie. You can’t do this to me.”
Vickie stayed silent for a long time. Walt didn’t know what else to say or demand. He forced himself not to start babbling or pleading, not to send one word after another tripping up the moment they left his lips. No useless sputtering.
“Call me later,” Vickie said. “If you can be civil.”
“I have nothing to do with the labor board.”
Walt tapped the red hang-up icon. He didn’t believe her. She’d arrange this as a way to put pressure on him to cooperate. To scare him. Which she had. The last thing Walt wanted was to spend the next four years tackling whatever dirty manual job the labor board assigned. Nobody who endured the draft ever came out of it better prepared for the future.
Kitty agreed when Walt told her.
“I need to give Vickie something,” Walt stressed. He paced near the door to Kitty’s private suite. Below them, in the workroom, two residents worked quietly assembling a racing plane from newly fabricated parts. Nearby, a 3D printer buzzed, laboring mindlessly on another aeronautic design. Kitty sprawled on her sofa, her feet up, knees bent, her billowing gown draped over her body,
“Are you going to turn on us?” she asked.
“Of course not.”
Silence hovered like a shroud over the room. Walt paced and Kitty, arms crossed, shut her eyes in contemplation.
“She must know something’s up for this year’s summer race,” Kitty whispered.
The mid-July races always produced protests. Some years saw massive parades. Visitors to the city’s outskirts. They crowded Northerly Island and the mass of boats and cruise ships in Lake Michigan provided a tempting opportunity to grab the public’s attention.
“Is there something special planned?” Walt asked. Something in him stirred. He remembered the giddy excitement of being a teenager chasing blue-domed police drones in the city, darting out from dilapidated buildings, firing slingshots, jumping back under cover before being detected.
Kitty pushed herself to a sitting position, grunting as she moved. She stood, the hassock creaking as it scraped the floor. Walt followed her to the metal spiral staircase leading down into the lower level. There, she interrupted the two young men studiously laboring at the long workbench in the middle of the room.
The pair left the room.
Walt waited. Kitty liked her little dramas. A panel slid open in the space between two shelving units loaded with overflowing bins of parts and supplies.
No one was in the hidden room. Soft light in the ceiling provided enough illumination for Walt to see several palm-sized four-engine drones on a wooden table, with a soldering gun, some spools of thin wire, and a cable leading to an interface box surrounding them.
“I’m showing you this,” Kitty said, “because you need to know how important this year’s races are to the movement.”
Walt never thought of attacking police drones as any sort of movement. When he was a kid, it was fun and it earned him kudos from his peers. As a post-high grad living in Bernie House, it was a way to get noticed by the house leaders.
Kitty opened a shallow drawer in the table. Unlike elsewhere in the hidden room, the drawer was organized, with small plastic boxes lined up, some taped shut and some taped to the sides of the drawer.
“This is what we’re going for,” Kitty said. She held up a finger-length memory stick and pressed to make its connectors suddenly spring out from a recessed area at one end. Turning to the bulky interface box, she inserted the stick. A keyboard shimmered across the tabletop and she tapped a few keys to bring up a virtual flat screen monitor. A spinning white top against a solid black background indicated that the system had come to life.
Walt continued to wait, holding his breath for a moment, eyes fixed on the projected screen. The view brightened, revealing a cloudless blue sky that filled the screen. A lone blue head hovered in the center, its distinctive dome pulsing. Then a four engine drone, one that looked much like those sitting on the tabletop, moved away from the top edge of the virtual screen. Like an odd flying insect engaging a bird in a strange ritual, the drone bounced in the sky, prancing near the blue head until it had its attention.
The scene shifted. Kitty remarked that this was now from the tiny drone’s point-of-view. The blue head sat centered in a rectangular window. Crosshairs wandered slightly from dead-on center until the black threads making up the targeting indicator took in an amber glow. Meanwhile, the blue head grew in size. Walt guessed the drone drew closer.
A sudden explosion left the blue head spinning apart, its own engines flying from its extended arms, its midsection bursting into flame. When the view shifted, Walt watched the attacking drone fly away, back to the top edge of the screen.
“When?” Walt began, pointing at the now empty sky depicted on the virtual monitor, “was this?”
“It’s a simulation,” Kitty answered. “But it’s what we’re aiming for this summer. That piece of information you got for me – ”
Walt felt an itch on the top of his finger where he’d secreted the microdot beneath his silver house ring.
“—it had this scene on it. And plans for these autonomous drones.” Kitty pointed at the small four-engine craft on the table.
Walt shrugged. Autonomous drones weren’t new. They weren’t usually very accurate when it came to attacking blue heads, but Kitty had deployed them before.
“We’ve got a better handle on the software,” she explained. “Better self-targeting. Which means we don’t need to keep anyone on the ground with a receiver and a controller. Less chance of getting caught.”
Walt nodded to show that he understood.
“And a new weapon,” Kitty said. “That’s why the blue head exploded like it did.”
“But that was just a simulation,” Walt countered.
“It’s been tested enough. Now, the real test comes in mid-July. On Summer Racing Weekend.”
“What kind of weapon?”
“Think of it as a spring-loaded slingshot firing several explosive pellets one after the other.”
“Why’re you telling me this?”
“Because you need to know how important it is that you don’t tell Vickie Simmons.”
Walt twisted his hands together, annoyed to have been brought into Kitty’s close circle again. He didn’t want to be part of her secrets. Once he achieved the position of house president, he no longer cared to know anything about Kitty’s activities. What he didn’t know, he couldn’t tell.
“If this gets out,” Kitty said, “we’ll know how and you won’t be happy with what happens.”
“I told you, I’m not – ”
“And now I have some insurance,” Kitty said, waving away his objections.
“But I have to give her something.” Walt hated the whiny sound of his voice.
“We need something that takes her in another direction, Walt.” The grandmotherly kindness often applied to youngsters who came to Kitty for counseling crept into her voice. “That’s why I’ve gone to the trouble of showing this to you. So we can come up with something that doesn’t accidentally tip our hand.”
The scene replayed itself in Walt’s mind, with Vickie standing tall and formidable on a street corner in an old section of Chicago, just north of where the river split in two. Dirty brick buildings loomed behind her, their wire screened windows evoking the look and feel of an earlier time in the city’s history when glass broke, stones were thrown, and the chanting of thousands reverberated in the streets. Blue domed police drones put an end to the demonstrations, but then gave rise to a different form of protest.
All imagination, Walt labeled his mental pictures. In reality, Vickie’s blurred image appeared in the video feed emerging from the band on his left wrist. She’d called him.
“Ignoring me won’t fix anything,” she said.
Walt adjusted the virtual screen, twisting it with his fingers, expanding it, pinching its corners, until he realized that Vickie had initiated blur mode.
“I don’t have anything to tell you,” Walt said, and worried that something in his voice would tell Vickie that he lied.
“Headed to the races?” Vickie asked.
Walt nodded. He started to blur his video feed. Let Vickie have a taste of her own medicine.
“We know something’s planned,” Vickie said.
“Why’re you asking me then?” Walt countered.
“We’re asking a lot of people.”
“But I’m the one you’re putting pressure on.”
Vickie laughed. “Only because I love you.”
“You’re not the same person I remember,” Walt whispered, and realized that he saw her perfectly. She was the enemy.
“The labor draft will be good for you,” Vickie said. “You’re just living out an extension of your childhood. That’s why I left you. I couldn’t share that kind of life.”
He let her words sink in. “Did you practice that little speech?” Walt asked.
“I’ve lived with that speech for years. Get back to me with something I can use. Before it’s too late.”
Walt watched the screen go black when the wristband absorbed the projected monitor. He tried to imagine what life would be like in Bernie House if he turned on Kitty. Nobody would know he’d been the one. But Kitty would know. She’d guess it. And what about the house? It would never recover its social standing. Everyone’s monthly salary would be hard hit by the collective demerits. How would he recruit new members if the house became a pariah?
Trembling, he headed downstairs, taking his private stairwell so he had time to prepare himself for meeting anyone, speaking to anyone. Although he preferred to sit alone in his suite of rooms and ponder the future, he knew his place, as president of the house, would be in the grandstand at the park, watching the races.
Not placing in any of the qualifying heats, Bernie House was relegated to the round-robin consolation rounds. They weren’t very important, and there was no prize money to be won, but Walt tried to act as enthused as possible. Besides, Kitty didn’t really care about the race. She cared only how Bernie House fared in the covert attacks on the blue heads.
She sat with the assembly members in a section of the grandstand reserved for Bernie House. A crowd milled about on the lawn, with picnic blankets spread here and there, and small groups of scruffy racing fans who’d come from the city-proper.
The race organizers crowded the raised platform that housed the electronics that provided varied virtual race tracks. A few buzz-flyers flew in a long oval a hundred feet up. Some pilots showed off their skill with dips and loops and figure-eights. As Walt settled onto the aluminum bench, taking the place saved for him by Kitty, he glanced at the pad she held in her lap. Tuned to the public broadcast, it showed an overview of the current course, with buzz-flyers featured as green orbs, virtual obstacles as red squares, and the track’s walls as thick black lines.
“Vickie called me,” Walt said.
Kitty nodded. “I expected she would.”
“I have to give her something.”
Kitty didn’t respond. She brushed her fingers through the gray hair falling across her chest. She smoothed the fabric of her voluminous gown. The thick cloth looked too warm for a summer afternoon, but Walt always found Kitty looking comfortable no matter the weather, no matter if she wore a silky dress outside in the cold of winter or a quilted wool garment in the heat of summer.
Doris March appeared at the base of the grandstand, her hand on a railing. She looked up. Walt avoided her eyes.
“You’re prepping her to take over, aren’t you?” Walt asked Kitty.
Kitty leaned close. Walt sniffed the lavender perfume she often dabbed behind her ears and across her throat.
Several times in the past couple of weeks, Walt had caught sight of Doris either lingering in the basement near the door to Kitty’s suite or exiting after meeting with the house counselor. It annoyed him to think he’d already been displaced.
“You’re going to like what you see here,” Kitty said, pointing.
“I don’t care about the race!”
Stu Renwald, Bernie House’s main pilot, loped across the lawn to an assigned cubicle near the command-and-control pit. Doris joined him and they huddled. Walt wondered why they conspired like that. He hadn’t expected to see them chatting in whispers, side-by-side.
Doris took a small blue backpack from Stu. She shot a look in Kitty’s direction. She smiled. She looked happy. Pleased.
“You’ve co-opted her,” Walt said.
“She wants to be the next president,” Kitty said. “She knows what’s expected.”
Doris started off at a jog, arms swinging, the blue pack on her back, and the narrow cloth straps across her wide shoulders. A cloth belt wrapped around her chest.
“Call Vickie,” Kitty said.
Walt hesitated. “What’s in the backpack?”
“Call Vickie. You want to save yourself, call Vickie.”
“You can’t trust her. I mean, Doris. She’ll turn on you.”
Again, Kitty urged him to call Vickie, adding, “I know what I’m doing.”
Walt tapped his wrist band and twisted his arm to see better his recent calls listing, squinting slightly in a battle against the afternoon sunlight. He focused on Vickie’s icon, a blurred facial and a black badge reading ‘Metro Traffic Div’.
Her face greeted him in the small projected monitor. It was Vickie’s automatic reply. Walt leaned close to his wrist and shortened the distance even further by raising his hand to his face.
“You need to call me. Immediately, Vick. Please.”
Just as he relaxed, and with a sideways glance at Kitty, the virtual monitor cleared to gray, and Vickie’s auto-reply morphed into a visual with the park in the background, along with noise from the crowd.
“I have information,” Walt said, putting a bit of excitement into his voice. He tried to sound breathless, as though he’d just run in from somewhere.
“I’m waiting,” Vickie said when Walt didn’t continue to speak.
“Blue backpack. Woman – ” Walt decided not to name her – “headed along the walk to the wooded area just south of the races.”
“What’s in the backpack?”
“Something you’ll find interesting.”
Walt disconnected before Vickie could quiz him further, guessing that Kitty had stuffed incriminating evidence that would satisfy the police and have an adverse effect on Doris March’s ambitions. Possibly, there was enough in that pack to send Doris to an interrogation center for a few nights.
“You don’t want her, either,” Walt said to Kitty. “To take over after me,” he added.
Kitty remained silent. Walt tried to pick Doris out of the crowd of pedestrians on the wide walkway. A slow-moving police-bot bisected the lines of race fans meandering along the cement path. Uniformed cops fanned out onto the grass. Overhead, buzz-flyers engaged one another in a multi-lap race, and people cheered for their houses and their favorites.
A patch of blue caught Walt’s eye. Doris walked with her back slightly bent, her arms pumping as though that gave her a little bit of extra strength needed to lighten the load in the pack. He imagined she had a smile on her face, her mind full of the fantasy that she’d finally found acceptance in her house.
Walt didn’t feel sorry for Doris. When several black-clad police intercepted her, he grinned, chuckling, glad to see her stopped and soon pinned to the ground. He looked to Kitty, to share his delight in the scene.
Kitty nodded in the direction of the copse of trees deep in the wooded area. A bevy of quadcopters erupted. Not the usual four or five drones that usually assaulted the blue heads, but, rather, more than a hundred. They rose like a dark and noisy cloud, skirting the leafy treetops for a moment before charging high into the sky.
Several police drones dropped from their assigned altitude, as though to investigate the disturbance. They were met with a volley of explosive pellets. People on the ground cheered. Walt didn’t know if they rooted for the autonomous attackers or the racing prop-planes buzzing just a hundred feet overhead.
More blue heads converged on the cloud of quads. Explosions erupted and two blue heads fell, again to the cheering approval of the crowd, the roar that could only be interpreted as support for this small act of rebellion.
“Are they all ours?” Walt asked Kitty.
She shook her head. “A couple of other houses. We’re coordinated for once. They’re autos. Every one of them. No chance of anyone getting caught.”
Walt picked out Doris again. She sat on the grass, hands behind her back. The distance was too great for telltale details.
Kitty shifted her body slightly and pressed against Walt’s. “Decoy. There’s nothing in the backpack, but that should be enough to get you off the hook with Vickie.”
“Spare parts. Doris thinks she’s in the circle now. I told her she’d have my support for president once you’re gone, but she had to support Bernie House’s other efforts first.”
Walt laughed. The appeal to Doris’ need for acceptance, and the possibility of her realizing her ambitions, had blinded her to Kitty’s malfeasance. As the quadcopters continued their attacks, with more blue heads joining the fight, Walt swelled with pride in what his house had accomplished. In the annals of the summer races, this would be lauded as the epitome of rebellion.
Walt glared at Vickie’s face, which took up the entire viewport in the virtual monitor projected from his wristband. “I got you what you wanted,” he said.
“You didn’t give me what I wanted!”
“What about Doris March?”
“She doesn’t know anything. And what we found in her backpack – well, that’s as useless as well. She was a red herring. Eighteen blue heads were brought down, destroyed, crashed, all over the city. Four at the races. Six along the lakefront from Highland Park to South Shore.”
Walt suppressed a smile. He’d only known about Kitty’s plan. He had no inkling that it was part of a city-wide action.
“Doris hasn’t come back to the house,” Walt ventured.
“March is being questioned, but it’s useless. She knows even less than you.”
Walt didn’t take Vickie’s bait, wouldn’t claim he knew more than she thought. He saw the canny cop in his view screen, not the young woman who’d left him seven years earlier.
“You’re not in Metro Traffic, are you?” he said.
“What I’m in or not in is no – ”
“That was part of your ploy. To get me to help you. Help you get out of a rut? Nice work, Vick.”
She didn’t respond and he knew she’d only pretended to be in Traffic, only feigned a need for a ‘big win’so she’d move on in her career, find herself assigned to more important work.
It didn’t work. Bernie House was safe. The back room where the autonomous drones had been assembled, along with the special programming that gave them better ‘smarts’ than ever, had been cleared out. Any sudden inspection by Security would yield nothing.
“When do you report?” Vickie asked in a mild tone of voice. She wet her lips, flicking the pointed tip of her tongue first one way and then the other. Her face shined. Walt wondered if he really did see tears welling in her dark eyes.
“Next Wednesday. A week from tomorrow.”
“Some time in a labor battalion will do you good.”
He blew some puffed breath from pinched lips in response to that sentiment.
“Don’t you think it’s time you grew up?” Vickie asked. “Bernie House is just an extension of childhood. You’re all just kids, no matter how old you are, collecting your monthly dole from the government, contributing nothing, just living like you did when you were in school.”
Walt didn’t reply. Everything she said sounded more like accusations than actual truths.
“You don’t know how good this is going to be for you,” she said.
Again, Walt didn’t reply. A moment passed. Vickie blinked a few times before her image dissolved and the projected monitor went blank. After a few seconds of staring at the empty screen, Walt tapped his wristband and looked out the window of his office near the back of the first floor. On the other side of the thin wall, the sounds of Bernie House residents filing into the cafeteria reverberated in the air.
Life in the house would continue. He might be missed, but the house would go on much as it always had. Stu Renwald would soon be voted in as the new president. New residents would indulge themselves in the buzz-flyer hobby. Kitty would have her circle of acolytes. Doris March would probably be released, but with so many demerits in her record she’d need years to repair her social standing. She wouldn’t even keep her role as Master at Arms.
Walt tried to find some amount of pride in his decision to protect his house. He should be happy. He shouldn’t dread what would come next week. Four years in a labor battalion couldn’t be too bad. Other people survived those years, though none had ever returned to Bernie House afterwards.
That bit of truth gnawed at him until he dismissed it as unworthy of his attention. He’d survive and return. Just to prove Vickie wrong. They could take him out of Bernie House, he thought, but they couldn’t take Bernie House out of him.
Copyright David Castlewitz 2021